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Dangerous dependency

The link between an education authority and its schools stifles innovation and variety, says Brian Sherratt who argues that reliance on this 'spurious partnership' is a sign of heads' cowardice.

Heads still rely on the dependency culture created by education authorities despite local management and greater financial autonomy. Authorities dress up this dependency as a spurious kind of partnership - the family of schools. But the dependency culture reproduces dependent people, not partners; the authority is always there.

Some heads have been institutionalised by education authorities, apparently incapable of functioning independently or dogged by a belief that there is something intrinsically wrong in standing on their own feet. If there is a problem then get on the phone to the authority. Why rely on your own judgment when making appointments? Bring in the advisers. Bare your soul at the next heads' consortium meeting. It is reassuring to know that it is not necessary to have the courage of your own convictions.

Heads are in a difficult position when considering grant-maintained status. Ambitious heads wishing to move to a larger school are dependent on the authority for their promotion. Those seeking early retirement are dependent on the authority for their retirement enhancement. This leaves the kind of head who puts the school first, but altruism does not imply indifference to the consequences of supporting a parental ballot on opting out with the likelihood of a "no" vote and a hostile education authority.

The number of heads who from a practical perspective are in a position to support GMS for their school might be less than anticipated. Authorities have too many heads unable to take the risk. Indeed, since 1988 authorities may well have tried to appoint heads unsympathetic to GMS.

Potentially, the GM sector could produce a new kind of head who accepts the challenge of full autonomy as a means of improving the school for pupils; a new culture in management. However, we shall not see this new culture if heads continue to think and operate as they did when they were part of an authority.

Whereas most heads rise to the challenge of self-management, others still cling to the notion of dependency. Having grown up in the dependency culture they fail to appreciate the managerial freedom that headship of a GM school might afford. As soon as their school becomes GM they look for someone or some institution "out there" on which to depend. They seem to want to recreate the sense of being part of a conglomerate that in some collective sense knows how to run their school better that they do; they feel the need to set up associations for GM heads or as the Grant-Maintained Schools Centre to provide authority-type services. This is not to argue there should be no co-operation or mutual support between autonomous institutions and autonomous individuals for such co-operation and support has been vital both during and subsequent to the process of acquiring GM status - but rather to point up the danger of recreating former bureaucracies.

It is not only heads and teaching staff who have been nurtured within the authority's culture of dependency, a culture which they have subsequently helped to sustain. The services of Solihull education authority have been used by governors of a number of Midlands GM schools for the recruitment and selection of heads! Is this dependency par excellence?

Governors and parents tend to find it difficult to think of their school running efficiently without the authority even though they may have no clear idea of what its bureaucracy entails. Many parents assume that it is "safer" to stay with the authority. Although the power lies with parents in determining the future of an authority-maintained school, they are inclined to follow the lead set by the head and governors, thereby perpetuating dependency. Ballots against GMS are not necessarily a vote of confidence in the authority or an expression of a political standpoint so much as an innate tendency to institutional dependency, often reinforced by carefully devised campaigns.

This dependency culture has implications for diversity of educational provision. In that the majority of authorities embraced the comprehensive ideal in the 1960s or subsequently, comprehensive schooling is invariably thought of as normative and, therefore, desirable; such schools, it is argued, are less elitist, more equitable, somehow better for the general populace. Understandably, many parents regard comprehensive schools as a means of escaping relegation to the second-class status previously associated with secondary modern schools. This is a perfectly reasonable position to take, but it is nevertheless an example of how the authority's culture of dependency militates against diversity, and hence greater choice, in perpetuating comprehensive conformity.

In effect, a Conservative government has inherited, and has continued to manage, a socialist education system which limits choice. This is not to argue that there is something intrinsically unsatisfactory about the concept of comprehensive education or comprehensive schools. The authority culture of dependency, by leading parents to believe that comprehensive schools are best, secures the future of a particular kind of schooling, thereby limiting the possibility of a mixed economy of educational provision in a given area.

Is it not salutary to reflect that the total experience of the majority of Office for Standards in Education inspectors will have been within such a dependency culture? It is a council monopoly on educational provision. Hence the hostility of some local councils to the Government's initiative both on GM schools and city technology colleges. In fact, such councils have been more hostile to GM schools than to CTCs because the former represent schools lost to the authority.

At present opting out is like a divorce. But it is a divorce with children; the authority still has some access and control. So a GM school is still bound to, still dependent on, its former partner in terms of financial arrangements.

The greatest current threat to the growth (and, therefore, continued existence) of the GM sector is the dependency culture. Currently authorities have the upper hand, backed by left-wing councils or by Tory councillors who will not let go. While the dependency culture thrives, we shall continue to observe members of the Conservative party - whether through vested interests (members of education committees) or by dint of the classic paternalism that refuses to believe that schools are capable of looking after themselves without their support - undermining the potential of schools to realise full autonomy.

Brian Sherratt is head of Great Barr GM school in Birmingham.

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